Chapter 8: Upholding the Reputation of the Department and Australia

This chapter sets out guidance on upholding the reputation of DFAT and Australia, providing references to groups and individuals outside the Government, using diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities, making public comments in a private capacity and using internet social networking tools.

Staff should contact the Employee Conduct and Ethics Section at conduct@dfat.gov.au if they require clarification on the contents of this Manual or if they are uncertain about the ethical implications of a proposed course of action.

8.1 Responsibility to Uphold the Reputation of the Department and Australia

8.1.1 APS employees and contractors have a responsibility to uphold the reputation of the department at all times. This means ensuring that their conduct and behaviour is consistent with the APS Values and Employment Principles. APS employees and contractors also have a responsibility to uphold the reputation of Australia overseas at all times. The APS Code of Conduct and the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service require staff on duty overseas at all times to behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia.

8.1.2 LES employees have a responsibility to uphold the reputation of Australia and their post at all times. The standard LES Code of Conduct states that LES employees’ personal behaviour, including their behaviour outside office hours, must not compromise the good reputation of Australia or the post.

8.1.3 The department and its work have a high profile in Australia and overseas. Therefore, some legitimate public actions involve risks to the reputation of Australia, and to the department’s reputation for impartiality and professionalism. These actions include: providing references in a private or official capacity on behalf of groups or individuals outside the Government; using diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities; and making public comments in a private capacity (including on the internet). It is important that APS employees, LES employees and contractors exercise judgment and caution to manage these risks.

Household Members of APS Employees

8.1.4 Unless they are staff members of the department themselves, household members of APS employees serving overseas are not directly subject to any departmental directions in relation to conduct and ethics. They are not covered directly by the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service. However, the high visibility of household members as part of an Australian official community means that any inappropriate behaviour or violation of the host country’s laws by a household member can damage the reputation of the department, the post and Australia (clause 6.2 DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service).

8.1.5 In accordance with the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service, APS employees serving overseas must take all reasonable steps to ensure that members of their households do not engage in behaviour likely to damage the reputation of the post and Australia. Instances of misconduct by household members could result in the termination of an APS employee’s posting.

8.1.6 Article 37 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (VCDR) [PDF] provides members of the family of a diplomatic agent with privileges and immunities. Because of this provision, family members must respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State in accordance with Article 41 of the VCDR. Articles 53 and 55 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963 (VCCR) are relevant in this regard to members of consular posts.

8.2 Providing References

Providing references for those outside the Government — What do I need to do?

All staff

  • Ensure those seeking references are of good repute and acting in good faith
  • Clear appropriately any references provided in your official capacity
  • Seek advice from EES if the reference is to influence an Australian Government decision

8.2.1 Staff of the department – particularly senior APS employees such as HOMs/HOPs – are often asked to provide references for groups or individuals outside the Australian Government. Staff may be asked to provide references in either their official or private capacities, and for various purposes – including for job or grant applications or for furthering commercial opportunities.

8.2.2 The department recognises that in general terms, it is legitimate for staff to provide references for groups and individuals outside the Government. At the same time, staff need to exercise judgment and caution before providing any such references. This is particularly so for HOMs/HOPs as the most senior representatives of the Government in their host countries.

8.2.3 If later placed on the public record, a reference for a group or individual whose actions or intentions are contrary to Australia’s or the department’s values or interests may undermine the reputation of the department and the staff member who provided the reference. A reference which intervenes inappropriately in a decision of the Government may undermine the department’s reputation for impartiality and professionalism within the Government.

8.2.4 When providing a reference for a group or individual outside the Government, APS employees, LES employees and contractors must assure themselves that the group or individual seeking the reference is of good repute and is seeking the reference in good faith. Staff should not provide a reference unless they know the purpose of the reference and that purpose is consistent with the department’s values and interests.

8.2.5 Where a reference is being given in a private capacity, staff should make it clear in the reference that they are expressing private views. To ensure a clear distinction between a reference conveying private views and a reference which may be construed as an official departmental view, staff should not provide references in a private capacity on official departmental letterhead or from departmental e-mail addresses.

8.2.6 Staff should not provide references in an official capacity unless the references are in direct pursuit of government policy and are appropriately cleared (usually by an SES employee or HOM/HOP) in the same way as any other form of official correspondence.

8.2.7 If the purpose of a reference is to influence a decision of the Australian Government (other than a normal reference for an Australian Government recruitment process), staff should seek advice from EES before agreeing to provide the reference.

8.3 Appropriate Use of Diplomatic and Consular Privileges and Immunities

Diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities — What do I need to do?

APS employees

  • Familiarise yourself with the Guidelines on Diplomatic and Consular Priviledges and Immunities before any posting overseas
  • Complete appropriate use certification on arrival at post, and comply with the undertaking throughout posting overseas

8.3.1 Diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities are conferred by host governments on APS employees posted overseas to facilitate the operation of the diplomatic mission or consular post. They are not conferred for the personal benefit of APS employees or their family members. APS employees posted overseas must act with integrity in relation to any privilege they may have as diplomatic or consular representatives.

8.3.2 Abuse of diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities has the potential to harm bilateral relations with the host country, the reputation of the department, and Australia’s standing internationally. It may also leave an employee open to compromise by those who become aware of the abuse. Abuse of diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities may constitute a breach of the APS Code of Conduct and the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service. It may also constitute a breach of applicable Australian laws.

8.3.3 Key principles are that:

  • only those who appear on the diplomatic or consular lists published by the foreign ministry of the receiving state are entitled to diplomatic and consular privileges;
  • goods obtained under privilege must not be sold or used as payment of any kind or purchased on behalf any other person who does not have that privilege;
  • privileged employees have a responsibility to abide by local law even if they may have immunity within its jurisdiction;
  • privileged employees should give particular attention to laws and directions concerning bank accounts, the prohibition on the use of currency black markets and on the resale of alcohol and cigarettes, guidelines applying to the purchase and disposal of motor vehicles and the need for the prompt payment by staff of all fines associated with traffic infringements;
  • except in the case of minor traffic infringements, privileged employees should inform HOM/HOP as soon as possible if they or a member of their household comes to the notice of local law enforcement authorities;
  • privileged employees must take all reasonable steps to ensure that members of their households do not abuse diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities.

8.3.4 Before any posting overseas, APS employees must familiarise themselves with the Guidelines on Diplomatic and Consular Privileges and Immunities, set out in the General Administration Manual, Chapter 7, Attachment 1. On arrival at post, APS employees posted overseas must complete and sign the Certificate of Undertaking: Appropriate Use of Diplomatic and Consular privileges, which is in the General Administration Manual, Chapter 7, Attachment 2. Throughout their posting, APS employees must comply with the Guidelines on Diplomatic and Consular Privileges and Immunities. Section 8 of the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service also provides guidance on integrity in the use of diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities.

8.4 Making Public Comments

Making public comments in a private capacity — What do I need to do?

All staff

  • Ensure that when making public comments, it is clear that they are your private views and do not damage Australia's or the department's reputation. Always be mindful of the APS Values and Employment Principles and Code of Conduct.
  • Clear all private publications, speeches and media dealings on issues of political, economic or social interest with AS PMB or HOM/HOP.

8.4.1 The department recognises the right of staff to participate as private citizens in public discourse and to make public comments in a private capacity. At the same time, APS employees, LES employees and contractors have responsibilities when they make public comments in a private capacity. The term “public comment” here is used broadly, and includes comment made on political or social issues at public speaking engagements, during radio or television interviews, on the internet (including blogs, social networking sites and other online media), in letters to the press, books or notices, or in academic and in other forums where the comment is intended for, or may be accessed by, the community at large. Specific advice on using social networking tools can be found in Section 8.5.

8.4.2 Section 7.1 of this Manual sets out guidelines on the appropriate use of official and personal information. Staff who make unauthorised disclosures of official or personal information through public comment may compromise security, commercial interests or privacy, and may also undermine the department’s or their post’s reputation for professionalism. In this way, they may breach relevant Australian laws, as well as the APS Code of Conduct or their post’s LES Code of Conduct.

8.4.3 Even where their comments are unrelated to official information, staff must exercise judgment and ensure that they are mindful of the APS Values and Employment Principles and Code of Conduct when making any public comment in a private capacity. DFAT staff should ensure, among other things, that they do not undermine Australia’s and the Department’s reputation.

8.4.4 In its publication APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice, the APSC provides guidelines to APS employees on making public comments in a private capacity. The department has adapted and extended this advice to all staff (APS employees, LES employees and contractors) in section 8.4.5 below.

8.4.5 Staff of the department (APS employees, LES employee and contractors) may make public comment in a private capacity and as private citizens, as long as they make it clear that they are expressing their own views. In this context, staff should bear in mind that APS employees must still uphold the APS Values and Employment Principles and Code of Conduct even when material is posted anonymously, or using an ‘alias’ or pseudonym, and that even if they do not identify themselves as an APS employee or an employee of the agency, they could nonetheless be recognised as such. As a rule of thumb, irrespective of the forum, anyone who posts material online should make an assumption that at some point their identity and the nature of their employment will be revealed. As general guiding principles, it is not appropriate for staff to make public comment that is, or could be perceived to be:

  • being made on behalf of the department or Government rather than an expression of a personal view (this applies particularly to senior staff);
  • compromising a staff member’s capacity to fulfil his or her duties in an unbiased manner (this applies particularly where comment is made about the department’s policies and programs);
  • so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the staff member’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially (such comment does not have to relate to the staff member’s area of work);
  • so strong in its criticism of the department’s administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace (staff members are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms, or if appropriate, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 regime);
  • a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment;
  • unreasonable criticism of an agency’s clients and other stakeholders;
  • compromising the public confidence in the department or the APS.

At all times, staff members must be mindful of the requirements set out in Public Service Regulation 2.1 and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 concerning the disclosure of information.

8.4.6 The department has procedures in place for clearing publications, speeches or interviews by staff members in their official capacity. See Administrative Circulars P1161 on engaging the media and P1195 on speeches and publications by Heads of Mission/Post and Other Departmental Staff in their Official Capacity.

8.4.7 Departmental staff intending to give public speeches, publish material (including online) or engage with the media in their private capacity should refer to Administrative Cicular P1202 — Speeches, Publications and Media Engagement by Departmental Staff in their Private Capacity. In particular they should consult the Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch (AS PMB) or HOM/HOP, where such public comment could be seen to contain commentary- explicit or otherwise- on subjects of political, economic or social interest. It is also recommended, AS PMB or HOM/HOP be made aware of any private dealings staff have with the media which may reasonably become public in circumstances capable of being interpreted as reflecting a departmental or post view.

Case study — upholding the reputation of the department and Australia

A DFAT colleague sent me an e-mail that contained potentially defamatory comments about a key political figure in my current host country. He sent the e-mail to a number of people. It was then forwarded to a journalist. He also included his official signature block on the e-mail. Is he in breach of the APS Code of Conduct?

Your colleague may be in breach of a number of sections of the APS Code of Conduct, including improper use of Commonwealth resources.

By sending the e-mail from his DFAT e-mail address and by attaching his signature block, he has identified himself as a DFAT employee and may have breached the requirement for all APS employees to behave at all times in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles and integrity and good reputation of the APS. By identifying himself as a DFAT employee, there is a risk that he has damaged the reputation of the APS, particularly if the journalist publishes the information and attributes it to him as a DFAT employee, and especially if the comments are defamatory.

All information sent on DFAT’s internet and e-mail systems is official information. It is recorded and can be recalled at any time, including for use as evidence in an investigation.

8.5 Acceptable Personal Use of Social Media

Acceptable personal use of social media — What do I need to do?

All staff

  • Apply the same rules and exercise the same judgment and caution when using social media as for any other form of public comment in a private capacity.
  • It is not appropriate for staff to make comment that is, or could be reasonably perceived to be:
    • compromising your capacity to fulfil your duties in an unbiased manner
    • so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a Member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about your capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially
    • compromising public confidence in DFAT
  • Uphold the integrity, good reputation and security of DFAT and the Australian Public Service at all times.
  • Ensure use of social media complies with the department's privacy obligations to protect personal information held by the Department.
  • If in doubt, or concerned, about your personal use of social media discuss with your supervisor, or the Employee Conduct and Ethics Section.
  • Report any social media which is appropriate for an official response or which threatens staff, dependents or clients, DFAT buildings, assets and IT networks or seeks to damage our reputation as a professional organisation or the reputation of the Australian Government, to Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch (PMB).

8.5.1 DFAT staff may use social media in a personal capacity to stay informed professionally, to monitor news and events and to follow influencers in their area of work. While social media is an accepted part of life and maintaining an online presence is a common practice in the Australian community, it is important to remember that when you use social media in any capacity you are still bound by the Australian Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct, Values and Employment Principles and the DFAT Security Manual which expect you to uphold the integrity, good reputation and security of DFAT and the APS. DFAT Codes of conduct also apply to locally engaged staff, employees on secondment to DFAT, employees on leave, non-ongoing employees and contractors. Under the Overseas Code of Conduct an employee’s household members are also expected to behave in a way that upholds the reputation of Australia and the department, and this includes in relation to social media use.

8.5.2 All staff are expected to take personal responsibility for whatever they do online. APS employees, LES employees and contractors must maintain the highest standards of professionalism, probity and accountability when engaging with social media and other online platforms. When sharing on personal social media, DFAT staff must adhere to guidance in Chapter 8.4 Making Public Comments in a Private Capacity of this manual which is underpinned by the Australian Public Service Commission, APS Values and Code of Conduct in practice. For more specific guidance, staff should also refer to the APSC publication, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees.

8.5.3 You should be aware of the security risks associated with social media — information and personal. The information security risks include inadvertently disclosing: official information, classified or unclassified; personal information held by DFAT; privileged information gained through work; travel details of visits by Ministers or officials; or images that capture security features or infrastructure of DFAT premises. The personal security risks include sharing information about yourself, family or others eg. physical location, daily routines, work and recreational interest that could lead to unwelcome surveillance.

8.5.4 The above risks can be exacerbated through social networks – even closed ones like Facebook – where posts can be shared outside your network. The speed and reach of content posted on social media means that comments posted online are available immediately to a wide audience. Bear in mind that material posted online effectively lasts forever and may be replicated endlessly, through sharing and re-posting.

8.5.5 You should be circumspect about identifying yourself as a departmental staff member on the internet and consider your own and others’ security and personal safety, your position in the department, and location. Even if you choose not to identify as a DFAT employee online, remember that your anonymity online is far from guaranteed and content you share can be credited back to you even if you choose an anonymous username or have a profile set to ‘private’. When posting in a personal capacity you can be easily identified by others as working for DFAT even if you don’t disclose this information. A well-intentioned comment can have undesirable consequences in certain circumstances if the reader can attribute its source to a DFAT staff member.

8.5.6 Departmental staff, particularly Heads of Mission/Post or SES officers should also be mindful that the public may not necessarily be able to separate a private identity from a role as a DFAT employee. This is particularly true when serving in the overseas environment, where what you say may be perceived as representing DFAT and Australian Government.

8.5.7 Private statements can also carry more weight depending on your role and level of seniority in the department. SES employees in particular should consider their personal use of social media in light of their particular responsibilities under Section 35 of the Public Service Act 1999 to promote Australian Public Service values and comply with the Code of Conduct and to lead by personal example.

8.5.8 Regardless of whether or not you have identified that you work for DFAT or the APS in your profile and in the information you share, the account should

  • not use your employment or affiliation with DFAT or use DFAT logo, trademarks or other branding elements to imply it is a departmental account;
  • be clear that opinions expressed are your own and not those of DFAT e.g. ‘Views are personal‘; and
  • use a private email address — not a dfat.gov.au email address — to register or connect the account.

8.5.9 Unauthorised disclosure of information held by the Australian Government is subject to the sanction of criminal law. All staff, including contractors who handle official government material, are responsible for appropriately protecting all official information that is unclassified, classified or protectively marked.

8.5.10 DFAT staff and contractors must ensure that their use of social media complies with the guidelines set out in Chapter 7 Appropriate Use and Collection of Official Information and Resources of this manual, and does not compromise security, commercial interests and privacy, or disrupt the department’s operations.

8.5.11 You should not rely on a site's security settings for a guarantee of privacy, as material posted in a relatively secure setting can still be copied and reproduced elsewhere. Protect yourself, your family and colleagues from the risk of identity fraud and other threats. Refer to the Department of Communications and the Arts Stay Smart Online.

8.5.12 Because of their visibility and identity as part of an Australian official community overseas, the actions of household members on social media can have an impact on the reputation of Australia or of an Australian mission. Incidents of unacceptable behaviour by household members may result in recall to Australia or possibly termination of your posting.

8.5.13 Allegations of unacceptable social media behaviour will be handled with the same procedural fairness as other alleged breaches of the APS Code of Conduct.

8.5.14 Before you engage on social media, ask yourself:

  • Could my comments or posted images cause anyone to lose confidence in my ability to do my job effectively and without political bias?
  • Are my comments or posted images consistent with how the community expects the public service to operate and behave?
  • Could my comments or posted images lower or undermine the reputation of DFAT or the APS, or my own reputation?
  • Am I disclosing personal information about other individuals which I know because I am a departmental employee?
  • Are my comments lawful? For example, do they comply with anti-discrimination legislation, the Crimes Act, the Criminal Code and laws relating to defamation?
  • Are my comments revealing official information that could be security classified or protectively marked?
  • Would I be comfortable if my supervisor read my comments or saw my posted images?
  • Could my comments or posted images jeopardise my employment?
  • How appropriate are my comments or posted images in the social and political environment in which they will be made?

8.5.15 Interacting with official DFAT accounts

Staff are welcome to share and interact with official DFAT social media and websites. Bear in mind however that DFAT’s public engagement through external-facing channels of communication is intended to be transparent and reserved for interactions with the public, not for staff to talk among themselves. It can have negative consequences if our social media appears to be used to sustain conversations between colleagues.

8.5.16 Personal or Official?

If you assess that there is a sound business need for you or the position you hold to have an official departmental social media account, you should submit a business plan to Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch. For more information see DFAT Guide to Official Use of Social Media.

8.5.17 Dealing with mistakes

Depending on the nature of the error, you should inform your supervisor immediately for advice on further handling, which may include contacting Parliamentary and Media Branch (PMB).

8.5.18 Get help with a social media issue

It is the duty of all staff to alert their supervisor and/or PMB and/or the Employee Conduct and Ethics Section of any inappropriate content relevant to DFAT’s reputation that they come across, including where:

  • you find information or conversations online to which you think the department should respond. If possible, take a screenshot.
  • you find official information online that has not been authorised for public release. If possible, take a screenshot.
  • you find information posted online that threatens staff, dependents or clients, DFAT buildings, assets and IT networks or seeks to damage our reputation as a professional organisation or the reputation of the Australian Government. If possible, take a screenshot.
  • you are worried about your privacy, security or reputation as a result of social media posts.

8.5.19 Staff seeking advice on acceptable personal use of social media may contact the Strategic and Digital Communications Section in Communications and Parliamentary Branch at socialmedia@dfat.gov.au. To guide staff further, case studies on personal social media use follow. The advice contained in these case studies does not constitute legal advice, nor does the department guarantee the completeness of advice contained therein. Different solutions and outcomes may apply in individual circumstances.

Case studies – acceptable personal use of social media

I am about to go on posting and plan to use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, and to connect with counterparts in-country. I have registered my place of employment and recorded my current position and career history in the Department. What should I keep in mind?

On any social media platform, you should be circumspect about identifying yourself as a DFAT employee and consider protective security issues relating to your current and possible future position in the Department and your location. Think carefully about the type and amount of personal information that you disclose in order to protect your privacy and reduce the risk of identity fraud and other threats. Before publishing on Facebook, stop and consider if your comments or posted images are consistent with how the community expects the public service to operate and behave. Does your Facebook profile and content portray an image that upholds the integrity, good reputation and security of the Department and the Australian Government?

Remember that depending on your role, seniority and particular position in the Department, it may be difficult for friends, followers and the public to distinguish between your personal identity and your official position even when you are posting on a personal account. This is especially true when serving in the overseas environment, where your comments could be perceived to represent the views of DFAT and Australian Government. You should not use your employment or affiliation with DFAT or use DFAT logos, trademarks or other branding elements to imply it is a departmental account. You should be clear that opinions expressed are your own and not those of DFAT or the Australian Government, noting that use of the disclaimer, ‘Views are personal‘, does not exempt you from upholding the APS Values and Employment Principles and complying with the Code of Conduct.

You should also bear in mind that social media accounts are either authorised official accounts which must comply with departmental policies, governance arrangements and reporting obligations or they are personal and entirely an individual responsibility. Keep them separate. Use an official Facebook Page in preference to your personal Facebook profile to promote the work of the post in line with its public diplomacy or other communication objectives. If there’s no official social media presence but a strong and sustainable case to establish one, post should submit a business plan to Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch for approval.

Can I use social media, including private or member-only groups, to connect and collaborate with other DFAT staff or partner organisations around the world?

The Department’s IT network is the appropriate platform for sharing privileged or official information that has not been authorised for public release, including with colleagues. Unofficial social media groups should not be used to record actions, events, conversations or other transactions that provide evidence of formal advice or directions, or significant decisions by the Department. These records must be captured and maintained in a useable and accessible form in the EDRMS. This ensures that we meet our business, accountability and archival requirements in a systematic and consistent way, and that digital records are created for as long as they need to be retained.

If there is a business need to use online collaboration and networking tools on social media, staff should discuss with their supervisor and, if necessary, consult Parliamentary and Media Branch or Information Management Division. Staff should not use personal accounts where an official account would be a viable alternative. Staff should also ensure they only use approved internet-based cloud services and other applications for conveying official information. Not all those accessible from within SATIN Low are approved.

Staff may however use social media in a personal capacity to establish professional networks among colleagues and to stay professionally informed on the understanding that it will not compromise the integrity, good reputation, professionalism or security of the Department or the Australian Government.

I’ve been asked to contribute to a high profile foreign policy blog based on my current position in DFAT. Can I accept?

Social media is no different to any other public forum and staff should be guided by existing policies and procedures on making public comment in a private or official capacity. You should refer to section 8.4 of the Conduct and Ethics Manual and Administrative Circular P1202, Publications, Online Comment and Media Engagement by Departmental Staff in their Private Capacity. Before accepting a role or becoming involved in making public comments of a political nature or directly related to your work in DFAT, you should consider whether the content is appropriate in the context of your position, seniority and the social and political environment in which the comments would be made. Staff intending to publish any material, in their professional capacity or as a subject matter expert, which could be interpreted as reflecting a departmental or post view, should consult Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch or their HOM/HOP.

DFAT recognises the right of staff to participate as private citizens in public discourse. Publications, including scholarly works, by departmental staff can be advantageous to departmental and government objectives. In doing so, however, you must maintain public confidence in your capacity to undertake your duties professionally and impartially. Public perceptions are a primary consideration in Code of Conduct issues. Decisions on contributing to public commentary in a private capacity will be a matter of personal judgment and there can be no guarantee that a public audience won’t question your impartiality as a public servant and DFAT employee. Any public comment in a private or official capacity should guard against making unauthorised disclosures of official information.

If staff receive payment for writing blog posts or contribute regularly in a voluntary capacity, they must seek prior approval in line with section 5.3 of the Conduct and Ethics Manual on Outside Employment and Voluntary Work. In examining requests for outside employment or voluntary work, including during periods of leave, the Department considers whether it presents any real or apparent conflict of interest with official duties (and whether these can be managed); whether it adversely affects the performance of official duties; and the potential for the outside employment or voluntary work to damage the reputation of the Department or the Australian Government.

I have been posted overseas as Head of Mission and often use my personal Facebook account to post photos of myself undertaking official business. I also post personal pictures of family and holidays. A number of people I have met in country in an official capacity have become Facebook friends. Is this OK?

All departmental staff, but SES officers and Heads of Mission/Post in particular, should be aware that Facebook friends may not be able to separate your private identity from your role as a DFAT employee. This is especially true when serving in the overseas environment where what you say may be perceived to represent the views of DFAT and the Australian Government. Private statements can also carry more weight depending on your role and level of seniority in the Department. You should always consider how any disclosure of personal information could be perceived by others and reflect on whether any of the information you have shared about yourself, family or others such as physical location, daily routines, work and recreational interest could lead to unwelcome surveillance.

If you assess that there is a sound business need for you to connect with the public and share information about your official role and duties using Facebook, you should use the post’s official Facebook Page. If there is no official Facebook Page for your post, you may wish to consider submitting a business plan to Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch.

I write a travel blog where I share stories and photographs of my private travel experiences. I have just arrived at post and I have written a short piece about my first impressions of my host country. On my blog I have already stated that I work for the Department. In commenting about the political and economic environment of my host country, I am concerned that I may have disclosed information I received as part of my official duties. Am I in breach of the APS Code of Conduct?

The APS Values and Code of Conduct and the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service require staff to avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest and, while on duty overseas, to behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia. The information you have published on your blog should not appear to conflict with your ability to fulfil your duties in a professional, impartial and unbiased manner. By identifying yourself as a DFAT employee, what you say may be perceived as representing DFAT and Australian Government – more so depending on your role and seniority, and the particular social and political environment in which the comments are made. If your blog mentions classified or privileged information gained through your work, it may constitute unauthorised disclosure of official information. You should refer to section 8.4 of the Conduct and Ethics Manual on Making Public Comment and Administrative Circular P1202, Speeches, Publications, Online Comment and Media Engagement by Departmental Staff in their Private Capacity, and seek advice from the Employee Conduct and Ethics Section or Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch.

I am an A-based officer at post and my partner keeps a blog about our experiences in our host country. My partner has occasionally written about official functions we've attended and about conversations we've had with senior members of the host government at these functions. There's nothing sensitive or political about this blog. Is it OK for my partner to do this?

Unless they are DFAT A-based, contractor or locally engaged staff of the Department themselves, household members of APS employees serving overseas are not covered directly by the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service, nor are they subject to any departmental directions in relation to conduct. However, the high visibility of household members as part of an Australian official community means you and your partner need to exercise judgment and caution about the material on your partner's blog. Even where there is no material on the blog that could be construed as official information, indiscreet comments about prominent citizens in your host country could damage the reputation of the Department, the post and Australia. Incidents of unacceptable behaviour may result in recall to Australia or possibly early termination of your posting. Under the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service you are required to take all reasonable steps to ensure that your partner ceases to write about conversations held during official functions.

I am thinking about posting my views about how the Government is dealing with certain social issues on my Facebook account. I am currently working on a project related to these issues and have identified that I am a departmental employee in my Facebook profile. What should I consider?

The fact that you have stated your employment with DFAT and you are working on the issue may give rise to a perception of conflict of interest or impartiality. Your comments about the issues should not be so harsh or extreme in their criticism of the Government, a Member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that they raise questions about the your capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially. You should not refer to any classified or privileged official information which is not available publicly as you could be prosecuted under the Crimes Act and the Criminal Code.

Remember that others may not be able to distinguish between your personal and official identities regardless of whether you have stated that views are your own. Private statements can also carry more weight depending on your role and level of seniority in the Department. Staff should be mindful of the APS Values and Code of Conduct when making public comment, even when material is posted anonymously or using a pseudonym. DFAT codes of conduct also apply to locally engaged staff, employees on secondment to DFAT, employees on leave, non-ongoing employees and contractors. If you are on overseas posting, you should ensure your conduct online is consistent with the DFAT Code of Conduct for Overseas Service which states that “an APS employee on duty overseas must at all times behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia”.

I was reading a news blog about a political issue and have strong views about a topic discussed on the site. Can I publish a reply to the article on the blog?

As a member of the Australian Public Service, you have a right to participate in public discourse in a private capacity. Decisions on whether to comment on topical political issues will be a matter of personal judgment. Before you publish a reply, pause to consider how the public may perceive it. Some ‘red flags’ that signal it would be inappropriate to reply are where the comments may appear to be:

  1. made on behalf of DFAT or the Government, rather than an expression of a personal view
  2. compromising your capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner—this applies particularly where comment is made about DFAT policies and programs
  3. so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a Member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about your capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially
  4. so strong in its criticism of an agency's administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace— you are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms
  5. a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with your employment
  6. compromising public confidence in DFAT or the APS.

Even when material is posted anonymously or using an alias or pseudonym, be prudent and assume that you could be identified as the author and your comments made public. If you do decide to comment, you should not refer to any classified or privileged official information that has not been authorised for public release, as this may be punishable by law.

I hosted a Christmas party at my official overseas residence with friends, work colleagues and guests from the diplomatic corps. All had a great time and the fancy dress theme was a great hit. Can I publish some party photos on my personal blog?

Yes, but it’s important that the photographs are in good taste and do not damage your own or the Department’s reputation. You should respect the privacy of your guests and seek their permission before sharing on social media. While serving overseas, it is also important to think about whether posting the photos could compromise your personal security or that of other guests. Your photos may be better shared through a more secure platform or controlled mode of distribution. However, if they are to be published online, ensure the people in the photos are not named and there is no mention of DFAT, the Australian mission or official residence unless the event was open to the public. Use good judgment and common sense. Take time before publishing to reflect on whether the photographs or caption and comments could raise questions about your ability to meet the behavioural standards set out in the APS Values, Employment Principles and the Code of Conduct.

I noticed that a news blog quoted information that was incorrect. Due to my role in the Department I know the real facts. Can I reply to the blog and identify who I am?

No, you should first discuss your concerns with your supervisor and/or Media Liaison Section to see if a departmental response or correction is warranted.

While there are grey areas, you need to remember that any comment you propose to make in your personal or 'expert' role might reasonably reflect on DFAT or your APS employment. Your comments could be perceived to be made on behalf of DFAT or the Government rather than an expression of a personal view. In addition, you need to take care to ensure that you are not disclosing official information that has not been authorised for public release. Seek advice from a more senior officer, if in doubt.

Before commenting online generally, you should be confident that the material will not raise questions about your ability to meet the behavioural standards set out in the APS Values, Employment Principles and the Code of Conduct. Be prudent and assume that at some point your identity and the nature of your employment will be revealed even if comments are posted anonymously or using an alias or pseudonym.

SES employees should exercise particular care when making public comment as their leadership role provides more scope for conflict, real or apparent, between a personal view and their ability to fulfil current and potential duties in an apolitical, impartial and professional manner, and to be responsive to the Government.

I have subscribed to an internet dating site and have identified myself as a DFAT employee. Is this appropriate?

No, this is not appropriate. If you must list an occupation, you should say public servant rather than identify DFAT or an Australian mission overseas. You should not rely on a site’s security setting as a guarantee of privacy as material can be copied and reproduced elsewhere. You should also ensure that you are not disclosing privileged or official information that has the potential to compromise your own or the Department’s reputation or security.

8.6 Working with Offices of Portfolio Ministers

Working with Ministers' Offices — What do I need to do?

APS employees

  • Familiarise yourself with the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff (see Chapter 3.6 of this Manual)
  • Maintain working relationships with Ministerial staff in a manner consistent with the APS Values and Employment Principles

8.6.1 Most communication between Portfolio Ministers and APS employees in the department occurs through Ministerial staff. With the exception of Departmental Liaison Officers (DLOs) who remain APS employees, Ministerial staff are not APS employees — they are employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (the MoP(S) Act), which is administered by the Minister for Finance.

8.6.2 Building and maintaining a constructive relationship with Ministers and their offices are key responsibilities of APS employees. However, it is important to the reputation of the department and the Government that APS employees build and maintain that relationship in accordance with their obligations as APS employees in the department.

8.6.3 In working with Ministerial staff, APS employees should ensure that their interaction upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, specifically:

  • the APS is open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of Ministerial responsibility;
  • the APS is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.

8.6.4 APS employees and Ministerial staff should work towards achieving a professional and cooperative relationship. In providing frank, honest, timely and evidence-based advice, trust is crucial. APS employees should be aware that Ministerial staff provide important guidance about the Ministers’ policy and requirements and, by so doing, help APS employees to be responsive.

8.6.5 The relationship between APS employees and Ministerial staff needs always to recognise that Ministers have final authority and accountability to Parliament, and APS employees, through the Secretary, are responsible to Ministers.

Case study — working with Ministerial Advisers

An adviser in the Minister’s office phones me to request a brief by the end of the day. Because of the short timeframe, I am asked to email the brief directly to the adviser, rather than submitting it via the department’s MIN-NET system. It is not clear to me whether it is the Minister or the adviser who has requested the brief. What should I do?

The establishment of email links between Ministerial staff and APS employees increases the speed and frequency of requests and responses, but reduces their formality. This may lead to some uncertainty as to whether requests or directions are from the Minister or the adviser.

Good practice includes ensuring that employees, or their managers, are always confident that instructions are coming from the Minister by:

  • in the case of Ministerial submissions, requiring the Minister’s signature before acting on policy recommendations; and
  • in the case of significant oral requests from Ministerial staff, requiring subsequent confirmation in writing or by email that the request is endorsed by the Minister.

Managing Ethical Conflict

8.6.6 There may be occasions when APS employees receive requests for assistance or action from Ministerial staff which they consider inconsistent with the APS Values or Employment Principles, relevant legislation or departmental policy, or otherwise inappropriate or unethical. In these instances, it is good practice to resolve the situation through discussion and consultation. APS employees should discuss any concerns they have with their supervisor or more senior departmental staff, if their intervention is required.

8.6.7. APS employees when receiving requests for assistance should ensure an appropriate standard of documentation is maintained to demonstrate accountability and transparency when interactions occur between Minister’s offices and employees.

8.6.8 Recognising and understanding the different roles and responsibilities between Ministerial staff and APS employees can assist in determining an appropriate course of action in response to a request from Ministerial staff. The distinction can be summarised as follows:

  • Ministerial staff have a political role to help Ministers fulfil their aims across their portfolio; Ministerial staff do not have the power in their own right to direct APS employees, including to modify advice which the department provides to Ministers;
  • APS employees in the department are responsible to their Ministers through the Secretary and have an apolitical role to help Ministers draw on the depth of knowledge and experience in the department, provide a longer-term perspective and ensure due process under the law; APS employees should be responsive to requests made by Ministerial staff in their own right, provided that those requests are lawful, reasonable and consistent with the APS’ apolitical role.

8.6.9 When determining an appropriate course of action in response to a request from Ministerial staff, it is also useful for APS employees to familiarise themselves with the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff (see Chapter 3.6 of this Manual). The Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff binds all Ministerial staff employed under the MoP(S) Act. (DLOs are APS employees and are bound by the APS Code of Conduct.) Among the key elements of the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff are the requirements that Ministerial staff:

  • Treat with respect and courtesy all those with whom they have contact in connection with their employment;
  • Make themselves aware of the Values and Code of Conduct which bind APS and Parliamentary Service employees;
  • When travelling overseas on official business, behave in a manner consistent with the APS Values and Employment Principles and the APS Code of Conduct, to the extent they apply to officials on duty overseas;
  • Not knowingly or intentionally encourage or induce a public official by their decisions, directions or conduct to breach the law or parliamentary obligations or fail to comply with an applicable code of ethical conduct;
  • Acknowledge that ministerial staff do not have the power to direct APS employees in their own right and that APS employees are not subject to their direction;
  • Recognise that executive decisions are the preserve of Ministers and public servants and not ministerial staff acting in their own right.

8.6.10 Further guidance on working with the Government and the Parliament is set out in Chapter 2 of the APSC’s APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice, the Cabinet Handbook and the Prime Minister’s Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility.

Case study — caretaker government

It is a week since the Federal Election was announced and I have received a request from the Minister's office that the department prepare a list of key portfolio-related successes in selected regional areas, including the Minister's own electorate. While no reason for the request has been given, its seems clear that this information will be used during the election campaign. How should I respond?

Ministers may continue to request factual material from agencies during the caretaker period and material relating to the day-to-day business of government is supplied to Ministers in the usual way. However, to avoid controversy in the election period about claimed breaches of the apolitical and impartial values of the APS, it may be appropriate to decline a request for assistance if it requires the use of significant resources and is intended clearly for use in the election campaign. If in doubt, agencies should discuss with the Minister or his/her senior staff the purpose for which the material is to be used.

In most instances, agencies should also decline requests for policy advice during the caretaker period. There might, however, be urgent domestic or international issues on which policy advice should clearly be provided to Ministers to allow responsible ongoing administration or to protect Australia’s interests.

Employees with any queries or concerns about possible breaches of the caretaker arrangements should consult the "Guidance on Caretaker Conventions", which is issued by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet at the commencement of a new Federal Election. Any DFAT-specific concerns should be referred to the department's Executive Branch.

Last Updated: 5 March 2018